Monday, March 20, 2006

Review: Barbez - Barbez

Label: Important Records
Released: August 3, 2004

Listening to Barbez is like sitting in a smokey French cafe in the middle of...the Twilight Zone. They play a strange mix of styles that draws primarily on indie rock and cabaret with subtle hints of non-Western styles (a little Asian influence hear and a touch of Middle Eastern there). They've mastered the great indie rock trick of layering their sound and they use those layers to sound slightly off-time and out of tune, yet never quite out of control. The music's structure often breaks down for a few moments and quickly re-evolves just before I'm ready to write off the rest of the song. The vocals bring a dark seediness that rides on top of largely staccato notes. Even the violin sticks to short, sharp notes for the most part and when it does stray into anything longer than say a quarter note, it shrieks rather than sings. Barbez has created a sound that is agitated and vaguely unsettling, but still soothing in a very strange way. It almost feels as though they could do the music for the Grinch, but only if it didn't have a happy ending.

Rating: 7/10

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Discography: Talking Heads

In the hopes of reinvigorationg my blogging efforts, I'm going to try something new. I'm going to do a review of a band's entire (studio) discography. I recently spent a few days listening to the Talking Heads albums from first to last, so I'm going to start with them.

Perhaps no other band from that mid-70s NYC/CBGB scene had a bigger impact on music than the Talking Heads. That's saying a lot considering that they exploded out of the same underground that gave us Blondie and the Ramones as well as lesser-known, but equally influential, acts like Richard hell and the Voidoids, the Heartbreakers and Television. Not even Blondie's foray into rap had the impact of the Talking Heads' mix of edgey punk, dancable funk and unheard world music. On top of that, David Byrne's quirky voice and persona would be the envy of even the most self-consciously bizarre indie rocker today. Suffice it say, at least in retrospect, the Talking Heads are a big deal.

Talking Heads: 77 (1977)
This record has probably been given overly generous reviews over the years by those who would like to belive they saw the writing on the wall this early. Don't get me wrong, it's a fantastic record for its time, but it's principaally just a very good punk/new wave album. it lacks a lot of the really expansive sound that put the Talking Heads stamp on pop music as a whole, not just new wave. David Byrne's peculiarity is evident here, but also clearly still developing.
Rating: 7/10

More Songs About Buildings and Food (1978)
The songwriting and the production are both improved over Talking Heads: 77, but they still haven't really broken out of the new wave mold. The album is edgey and agitated and very compelling, but only if you like new wave to begin with.
Rating: 8/10

Fear of Music (1979)
This is the album where the Talking Heads go from an one-dimensional, arty club sound to an eclectic, avante-garde rock sound. This is the first album where the material really derives a lot more from complex funk and world rhythms. You can really hear how good the rhythm section (Chris Franz in particular) is. David Byrne's quirky persona seems to have reached fruition at this point as well.
Rating: 9/10

Remain in Light (1980)
Remain in Light follows the same formula as Fear of Music, but despite having one of the bands best songs ("Once in a Lifetime"), it falls a hair short of Fear of Music. Perhaps it's just a little less fresh. To be fair, I listened to these two albums on consecutive days, so Remain in Light might have sounded a good bit fresher if I'd been anticipating it for a year after being blown away by Fear of Music. While I gave it the same rating as More Songs..., It's really closer in quality to Fear of Music.
Rating: 8/10

Speaking in Tongues (1983)
Even on their big hit, "Buring Down the House," the Talking Heads get a little less accessible here. The thing that made the two preceding albums so amazing is how they pushed the boundaries without pushing the listener away. Speaking in Tongues doesn't quite succeed in the same way. Had it not been for the heavy MTV rotation for "Burning...," this album might have been largely dismissed and that would be a shame, because it really has some great moments that are worth the extra effort to appreciate.
Rating: 7/10

Little Creatures (1985)
In contrast to Speaking in Tongues, the Talking Heads made their most accessible record with Little Creatures. best of all, they don't sacrifice all weirdo stuff that made their past afforts so amazing. This record is culmination of all their work. It pushes the limits of what pop music can be with being pushy about it. Listening to Little Creatures, you can be exposed to a whole world of music and not even know it, because it's such a simple pleasure at the same time.
Rating: 10/10

True Stories (1986)
While True Stories has its moments, it's a little less exciting. It has the feel of a more traditional rock record. In all fairness, it does manage to stand on its own without the movie. As a matter of fact, the movie, as hard to watch as it is, doesn't hurt the album.
Rating: 6/10

Naked (1988)
By 1988, it seems that the Talking Heads were past their prime. But don't be fooled by that impression, because it's only somewhat true. While they don't manage to make a great pop record here, they do manage to push what a pop record can be. BY this time other artists (Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel) had further incorporated world music into Western pop, but the Talking Heads can still hold their own in a field that they helped pioneer.
Rating: 6/10

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Great Songs: Lean on Me

Most of my generation probably best remembers this song as Club Nouveau's 1986 synth-laden hit, but it was original recorded 15 years earlier by it's writer, Bill Withers, who also sent it to #1. I'll admit that the sentiment has a lot to do with why I like it, but before you jump on me for it, check this out from's bio of Bill Withers:

Withers wrote "Lean on Me" based on his experiences growing up in a West Virginia coal mining town. Times were hard and when a neighbor needed something beyond their means, the rest of the community would chip in and help. He came up with the chord progression while noodling around on his new Wurlitzer electric piano. The sound of the chords reminded Withers of the hymns that he heard at church while he was growing up.

So, it's not just some silly, sappy song. It's rooted in real human community and love. It's a song about solidarity.

Anyway, after listening to Club Nouveau's version and Bill Wither's original, I went on to listen to a lot of covers of "Lean on Me" and here's what I found:

Bill Withers (from Still Bill) - Withers gets a certain amount of credit for just writing the song, but his performance isn't as moving as the song itself. It's a decent version, but I don't feel him digging as deep to perform the song as he did to write it.

Club Nouveau (from Love, Life and Pain) - Despite the generic 80s backing track and dated production, this really is a very good version. The vocals have heart that really pay tribute to the song.

Al Green (from Trust in God) - Needless to say, this song was screaming to given a gospel treatment and Al Green delivers. The production is a little thin and the arrangement unoriginal, but it's overall competent. I just wish the gospel singers in the back would have moved up in the mix a bit.

Rascal Flatts (from Live) - Maybe it's just that it's live, but Rascal Flatts (and their audience) are really feeling it. Maybe it's just the perfect moment, because it is a song about community and that's what live music should really be all about.

Pam Hall (from R&B Hits Reggae Style) - The album title certainly didn't give me high hopes for this one, but while the synthetic reggae backing track was just what I expected, Pam Hall's performance rose above it. She sang with a gentle passion that fits the song perfectly.

Lynne Arialle Trio (from Arise) - Jazz covers have a tendency to get lost a lot. This is no exception. When it's on target, it's really more gospel than jazz, but it gets off target fairly quickly and the jazz improvization not only loses the basic melody, bt also the feel of the song. It does meander back and forth and you can hear the gospel grow and wane in direct relation to how much this version feels like "Lean on Me." It's interesting that this doesn't fail completely without the help of the words though.

Dan Tyack (from Unsanctified Gospel Revival) - This is another instumental that still manages some degree of success. The slide guitar backed by organ is pretty emotional, but the sax part interjects an urban sound that doesn't seem to fit the rest of the performance.

DC Talk (from Free at Last) - Overly produced and dated, DC Talk manages to strip as much soul out of the song as possible. They pretty much butcher it. It sounds like it was lifted from Michael Jackson' Dangerous album and put into the hands of far less competent performers.

Michael Bolton (from The One Thing) - This one is the greatest testement to this song's greatness: Michael Bolton couldn't kill it. He's such a terrible singer, kind of a poor man's Rod Stewart, but the arrangement stays true to the original and the backup singers sound very good. This guy managed to debase "Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay" and "Georgia on My Mind," so, if Michael Bolton can't destroy "Lean on Me", it must be a great song.

Valerie De La Cruz (from My Girlfriends Quilt) - Take a pop song, add some twang to the voice and a weak slide guitar and call it country. I'm not buying it. Not am I buying that Ms. De La Cruz gives a crap about this song.

Big Mountain (from The Best of Big Mountain) - After gospel, I'd think that reggae would be the next genre to lend itself to "Lean on Me," but both reggae covers I listened to tonight are deeply flawed by lame backing tracks. When reggae is adventurous, it can be really amazing, but it seems that it so seldom really pushes anything anymore. There were a couple points in this song where I thought they might do something cool, but they only glanced down those side streets and kept to the main road.

What I found in all these covers is that "Lean on Me" seems to be almost impossible to completely kill (well DC Star did a pretty good job of it though), but there doesn't seem to be a definitive version either. No one seems to have completely nailed it. A few came close, but no one quite got it. Maybe the Birmingham Sunlights or the Fisk Jubilee Singers will take a shot at it someday. Or better yet, maybe the Neville Brothers. That I'd like to hear.